If words that were written over 120 years ago still ring true, then one is forced to believe that there is some kind of truth to them that remains unfazed over a century. Such are the accounts from Pandita Ramabai’s The High Caste Hindu Woman, written in 1887, highlighting the archetypal subdued lifespan of a dominant caste Hindu woman.
It questioned the rigidity of a dominant faith. She brought forth how the dominant caste Hindu woman complies with her own oppression, under a veil of ignorance. She is made to believe that this is an ‘honorable’ veil, worthy of donning with utmost pride.
Ramabai stressed on education as a way out of this nexus of oppression. Besides education for women as a chief need, the other two chief needs that she stressed upon were: self-reliance for women and native women teachers who could communicate in local languages.
Focusing on these three primary chief needs that she speaks about, in contemporary times, we seem to have achieved them, to some extent. At least for the privileged dominant caste women being talked about in this context. However, a lot of Ramabai’s words ring still true, indicating that there’s a long way to go and certain oppressions have still been carefully preserved.
She brought forth how the dominant caste Hindu woman complies with her own oppression.
“In the form of a blessing, the deity is never invoked to grant daughters. Fathers very seldom wish to have daughters, for they are thought to be the property of somebody else”, she writes. Till date, the concept of paraya dhan is sung about, and till date, women do not get equal property rights in their natal homes, even though legally sanctioned.
The origins of these ‘unwanted’ daughters can be traced back to the Manusmriti, as highlighted by Ramabai in her sharp critique of its commandments. This was followed strictly by the dominant castes, burdening us with the still prevalent issues of Brahmanical patriarchy and its practices such as sex-selective abortion, infanticide and skewed sex ratios.
Further, as she talks about marriage, she goes on to explain caste endogamy in detail, as well as the custom of matching the horoscopes of the marriageable girl and boy, lest there be widowhood in her destiny and the boy would die. There was never any eagerness to see if the boy has widower-hood in his destiny.
However, moving past these naïve binaries, the same custom is still widely observed in dominant caste endogamous, heteronormative marriages. This is often cited as a convenient precautionary measure, so that couple-to-be have a smooth lifetime (and apparently seven more!) together.
Parents of those to be married can be frequently heard saying how they are modern and educated and don’t believe in all this, but it’s just a precautionary measure, equating misogynist old customs to fire extinguishers. So what purpose did the chief need of education end up serving in this regard, besides sugarcoating age-old patriarchy? In no way am I discrediting the importance of education from my exceedingly privileged position. The importance of education stands unquestioned!
Pandita Ramabai then talks in great depth about widowhood. She says while sati had been prohibited, the idea that widows were free was a grave misconception. The cruelties that widows have to face, in the form of daily taunts from in-laws, are a slow, torturous death. The ‘inauspiciousness’ of a widow still remains so.
Devoid of caste privilege, this ordeal becomes only much worse for women from non-dominant castes. So, while re-reading this impassioned account, with contemporary influences, one cannot ignore how these practices were much worse for those who didn’t have Ramabai’s caste privilege.
The ‘inauspiciousness’ of a widow still remains so.
While Srinivas may have coined ‘sankritization’ much later in the 1950s, it has always been a reality, where dominant castes saddled all their misogyny and norms on women from non-dominant castes. Ramabai’s chief needs resonate with the chief needs of only the dominant caste women, like she meant them to.
A lot of cruel old customs of dominant caste Hindus remain perfectly preserved and find their way into other caste groups, even after decades of agitations, campaigns and research. This caste rigidity reproduces itself, through the constant oppression of one gender, from life to death.
The nexus between caste practices and patriarchy is like a well-oiled machine. One can seldom argue with utmost certainty about which of the two fuels the other and to what extent, but it can be safely said both are co-dependent on each other for sustenance. It is this strong bond that makes it so tough to challenge either or both. Perhaps, the answer lies in a more fierce Ramabai kind of revolution, only more inclusive this time.
Featured Image Credit: Women’s Web